Interview with Alison Sperling - Part 4
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Plants in Science Fiction
I would love to get back to science fiction and plants in more detail. How did you get to participate in Plants in Science Fiction - Speculative Vegetation, why plants (and not something with technology, for example), and what is the topic of your contribution in it?
I was so happily surprised to see the reactions to and interest in this collection when Otherland’s social media posted about it awhile ago! And I’m really quite lucky to be included in this book; although “plant studies” as a small field has become quite robust in the amount of scholarship coming out in the last 5 years, this book is really the first of its kind as far as edited collections go that focus solely on the role of the plant (and fungal, more on that in a second) world in science fiction. When the call for submissions went out from editors Katherine E. Bishop, Jerry Määttä, and David Higgins, all quite well-known in the SF community as excellent thinkers and scholars in their own right, I decided to send in a piece on Jeff VanderMeer, whose writing I work with quite often, and was happy to make it into the book. I’m in excellent company there, and recommend it to readers of SF also interested in the nonhuman and the Anthropocene, but also in the ways SF reimagines embodiment, structures of temporality, modes of reproduction, and of course our relation to the sciences, among many other things.
There was a way in which I had already been thinking about (and with) plants for some time in my work before this piece, which may feel far afoot from SF, but it’s what got me thinking “vegetally” (as philosopher Michael Marder describes). I had already invested quite a bit of time in plant studies reading Marder, Randy Laist, Luce Irigaray, T.S. Miller, Natasha Myers, and Giovanni Aloi for a chapter in my book manuscript on plants and fungus in the work of Djuna Barnes.
"They grow in strange seemingly infinite ways"
Plants are super weird, so alien and unknowable for all sorts of reasons that plant philosophers have pointed out. And of course these dimensions of vegetal life vary, but they live along vast timescales throughout the year, they grow in strange seemingly infinite ways, they regenerate, they form invaluable interspecies connections to other plants and mycelial networks underground. Studies have shown all sorts of different ways plants may possess what we know as sentience, but more importantly they push us to think about what sentience means and challenge the ways in which that understanding is valued over other qualities. Katherine E. Bishop’s introduction to Plants in Science Fiction lays out quite nicely a lot of these ideas in more detail.
While doing my Ph.D. on literary modernism, I actually got into more contemporary science and weird fiction. After working on plant studies in Barnes, I was still doing a lot of thinking about plants and I was also beginning to work on SF/Weird writer Jeff VanderMeer a lot. And if anyone has read his work, they will know from the mushroom beings in the Ambergris series to the crawler in The Southern Reach Trilogy, that vegetal and fungal life play a central role in his worlds. My contributionto the plant book is titled “Queer Ingestions: Weird and Sporous Bodies in Jeff VanderMeer’s Fiction” (which looking back is a bit of a mouthful of a title actually, oops) [laughing].
"Fungal reproductive processes"
But it’s about how spores, which are mostly an element of fungal reproductive processes but also of some plants as well, build shared and quite toxic worlds in his stories. I turn to anthropologist Anna Tsing, theorist Neel Ahuja, and philosopher Luce Irigaray to think about queer, nonhuman forms of attachment in the various forms of ecological ruins (that are continued to be) left by capitalism. Spores are released in VanderMeer’s fiction and inhaled or ingested in various ways and without the consent of the body taking them on. They cause intense and super weird transformations (like after the biologist inhales a spore in the tower/tunnel in Annihilation) and they draw attention both to shared atmospheres as well as the ways in which transformation is both caused and necessitated by the toxic flows of the Anthropocene. So I write about how spores emphasize our shared atmospheres. And although really recognizing what it means to be entangled in shared worlds with others can be quite terrifying, I read the sporous-ness of VanderMeer’s work to suggest that the forms of embodiment he imagines also offer ways to think our shared toxicity outside of the rhetoric of purity vs. contamination.
Read on Part 5